Saturday, August 20, 2016

Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus (1984)

Nights at the Circus! It's 1899. There is a woman named Fevvers (dialect for "feathers"), "the Cockney Venus," a large, beautiful, coarse, and intensely mercenary woman who has--or appears to have--a pair of large wings growing out of her back (which indeed allow her to fly). She's been killing it for huge, awestruck audiences all over Europe. For the first third of the novel, she relates her life story (with the help of her foster mother, Lizzie) to Jack Walser, a bemused and skeptical American journalist. It's a digressive, hallucinatory story in which she lives in two separate brothels (although she maintains her virginity throughout), one a combination freak show, until...well, there's no use spoiling the twists and turns.

After this, Walser, dazed and fascinated by this character, decides he should try to join the circus so he can see more of her. So, he becomes a clown and it's off to Russia, and we get many more dazzling vignettes, involving (among many others) educated apes, a pig that can prophesy the future, clowns that may or may not be breaking the bounds of reality, acrobats, strongmen, tigers, elephants, MY GOODNESS. I don't feel capable of doing justice, really, to all of this.

Now, god knows I liked this book. Maybe loved it. It's wild, but also more humanistic than a lot of Carter's work is, so hey. But I must admit, I'm having trouble getting a critical grasp on it. Which, perhaps, is okay; sometimes things just are, and as we know, the failure to reflect is a hallmark of postmodernity. Still, I feel like there's more--or there should be more--to it. You don't set a novel in 1899 it you don't want to say something or other about interstices, the onrush of twentieth-century modernity, etc., and that's certainly the case here. There's a lot of feinting in that direction, with all of the magical-realism elements and how they fit into a given worldview that may be becoming obsolete. Towards the end, there's a long-ish section on a Siberian tribe which conceptualizes the world in a kind of out-of-time, magical way that only incidentally relates to the way we see it. And then, there's a rather splendidly ambiguous ending that calls certain things into question, in that way where not only are things different, maybe, but we think they've always been so.

Still, I do wonder--and, really, I'm obviously a lot dumber than Carter, so you should consider everything I say in those terms--whether the whole is quite as resonant as the author wants it to be. THEN AGAIN, maybe this isn't even the right way to approach the novel. There are elements here--the picaresque structure; the frequent lengthy, digressive stories about minor characters--that recall the eighteenth century novel more than anything else, and as such, maybe we should just TRY TO ENJOY IT, dammit, without analyzing it to death. Ha! What a terrible idea!

And, I mean, I feel like I'm bad at writing about it, and I'm not doing it justice, but Nights at the Circus really is frequently amazing throughout. It doesn't create an atmosphere as dreamlike as The Passion of New Eve does, but it's a more substantial story with more relatable characters. Which you prefer is down to your own sensibilities. I can't quite decide at this time. But I am glad that I decided at a certain point to read Carter's novels chronologically, so I'm not stuck with a weaker one to end on (I am reasonably confident Wise Children will not qualify as "weaker").

Anyway, time to pick on bits of the novel's wikipedia entry written by dumb people with chips on their shoulder:

Despite Angela Carter's reputation for feminist rhetoric, many feminists remain disappointed with this novel, arguing that it in fact promotes post-feminism. Many argue that the seemingly crude language used to describe women throughout the novel is anti-feminist.

Yeah...when an argument is supported entirely by some unspecificed "many"...that's when I reach for my revolver.

"My how her bodice strains! You'd think her tits were going to pop right out. What a sensation that would cause..." [pg. 17]

This is from Walser's POV. Even if, for the sake of argument, we are willing to concede that the novel's feminism or lack thereof hinges on Walser's being a perfectly enlightened twentieth-century man (WHICH IS AN IDIOTIC THING TO CONDEDE DON'T GET ME WRONG), the question remains: why do we think this is so offensive? Is it just because of "tits?" If that's the best you can do--and, let's face it, it is--it's pretty feeble. Seriously, if this is your idea of "crude" (or "seemingly crude," whatever that's supposed to mean)...I kinda think you're not what anyone would call well-read.

The fact that women are depicted as strong, forward thinkers that can remain outside of restrictive gender roles is reflective of post-feminist thought, in which women are not seen as victims and traditional feminism is no longer relevant within a modern society.

So is "traditional feminism" relevant in a novel featuring numerous cases of women being exploited by men? You can only write something like this if you totally ignore the text itself. For obvious, dopey ideological reasons.

This claim is backed by the fact that Carter's novel was penned and published during the 1980s, when post-feminism was really beginning to emerge.

Well queue ee fuckin' dee. Quod Erat Dumbasstrandum. Obviously, there's no point in even trying to address such a dopey, substanceless argument. You should try to be less idiotic, anonymous wikipedia writer.


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